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Read Darwin’s ideas, in his own hand

February 13, 2012

Charles Darwin, late in life. Source:

Sunday marked the 203rd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, so it’s fitting to say a few words about the great man and spotlight a nifty online collection of his own documents.

First, though, I want to acknowledge some issues with Darwin, or rather, some issues with folks who, to my mind, misapply his way of thinking. And no, this isn’t a rant for or against religion, and it’s not an explanation of what a “theory” is and is not. If you want that, go elsewhere. Google, as they say, is your friend.

I’m talking about a tendency to shift natural selection from the natural world into the social. There are archaeologists, for example, who adhere to something called “selectionism,” which applies the language of evolution (phenotype, genotype, etc.) and selection to human-produced artifacts. Needless to say, I’m not among the converted. And I have very little time for the sociobiologists, who try to explain cultural behavior solely in terms of evolutionary advantage. The problem with both of those schools is they end up drastically minimizing the ability of humans to act creatively and spontaneously, and they discount the ability of human-made cultural institutions, in all their glorious variety, to influence our actions in unpredictable and irrational ways.

But misuse of an idea doesn’t necessarily make the idea a bad one. On the contrary: Darwin’s essential idea was a great one, maybe the greatest.

Now, I don’t consider myself a “scientist” in any real sense of the word. The sorts of things that I’m interested in studying don’t lend themselves to hypothesis-testing and formal theorizing. Nevertheless, Darwin is one of my “scientific” heroes, for one reason: his theory of natural selection is, quite simply, beautifully elegant. I’ll explain more below the break.

I mean “elegant” in the sense of a scientific theory: one that makes a minimum of assumptions and purports to explain a great deal of things. Natural selection is perhaps the most elegant theory in the history of science. It starts with two self-evident observations. First, that a certain amount of variation exists within the biological traits of an animal population – some woodpeckers have longer beaks than others, for example. And second, not every member of a population survives to reproduce. It then makes one very simple but critical assumption: biological traits become more or less common due to differential survival and reproduction. From that one assumption, it explains … well, pretty much everything about the history of life on Earth.

What’s striking about natural selection is Darwin had no idea of its actual mechanism – this was long before we knew anything about genes and DNA. He knew something “carried” biological variation, but not what it was. It’s a little like anticipating the Indy 500 before the invention of the wheel. And remember that he was all of 22 years old when he set off on the HMS Beagle for what ended up being a five-year voyage around the world.

To be fair, Darwin wasn’t working in a vacuum. Other folks were thinking along similar lines, notably Alfred Russel Wallace. If you want an amazing and readable history of the development of Darwin’s thinking and the social conditions of his time, I highly recommend getting a copy of Peter J. Bowler’s “Evolution: The History of an Idea.” (Note: That’s a free plug, I don’t get anything if you buy a copy).

As a very cool and fitting way to mark the anniversary, the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Manuscripts Project has made available what it calls “the most comprehensive catalogue of Darwin’s scientific manuscripts ever compiled.”

In a post announcing the project, the AMNH points to a very compelling feature:

Particularly innovative are the notes featured on many of the manuscript pages, which make Darwin’s writing accessible to casual readers and scholars alike. For example, scholars can see a transcription of Darwin’s famous first attempt, in 1842, to sketch out an essay about evolution that eventually became On The Origin of Species. It is possible to follow every crossed-out line, every edited sentence, and every transposed block of text, in essence looking over Darwin’s shoulder as he composed his revolutionary first draft of evolutionary history. Alternatively, the site allows more casual readers to view the complete transcription without edits or annotations. This functionality offers clear, highly readable manuscripts without sacrificing drafts that represent important stages in the preparation of published texts.

I’ve done a bit of browsing there, and the collection is everything it purports to be. I imagine it would be quite interesting to track multiple drafts, and take into account Darwin’s own annotations and revisions.

So, a tip of the hat to man himself, whose almost ridiculously simple idea changed the very way we see ourselves and our place in nature.

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